As the EU dithers, democracy for #Liberia hangs in the balance

| November 6, 2017 | 0 Comments

In the aftermath of the October 10 presidential elections, Liberia’s democracy is being put to the test. Outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is facing accusations from within the ranks of her own Unity Party (UP) of having meddled in the elections, accusations that led Liberia’s Supreme Court on November 6th to issue a temporary injunction delaying sine die a run-off vote between George Weah and the UP’s Joseph Boakai to investigate the complaints. While Sirleaf strongly rejected these claims, postponement of the run-off is now threatening to undermine a peaceful transition.  And sadly, despite taking an active role in overseeing the vote, the EU has so far been silent.

A Nobel Peace laureate and Africa’s first elected head of state, Sirleaf has arguably left some big shoes to fill in her departure from office. During her term, Liberia has successfully completed the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, emerging from back-to-back civil wars and surviving a sweeping Ebola crisis to successfully eliminate the state’s debts. She boosted GDP and controlled inflation. Even so, the UP has not found favour with this year’s voters, with many insisting that the party has failed to deliver on its promises. On October 10, the UP Vice President Joseph Boakai won a mere 28.8% of the vote.

Senator George Weah came out on top in the first round, winning 38.4 percent of the vote. However, without the majority needed to win outright, a run-off election was scheduled between Weah and Vice President Joseph Boakai. Quick on the heels of disappointment at the ballot box, the UP has followed up with charges that Sirleaf interfered with election results by meeting privately with election magistrates before the vote. Joined by two other major parties in a legal challenge to the vote, the incumbent group declared the elections as “characterized by massive systematic irregularities and fraud.”

On Sunday (5 November), the Liberty Party submitted a formal complaint to the National Elections Committee (NEC), calling for an annulment of the original vote and that the run-off vote scheduled between Weah and Boakai for November 7 be annulled. Subsequently, all other major candidates joined the call for the annulment at a time when it seemed like Weah’s fortunes had remarkably changed since he first ran in the 2005 presidential race.

He admitted to being “young and inexperienced” back then, but remains steadfast in his commitment to protecting the people’s mandate this time around. That mandate is far from simple: many of Liberia’s communities still lack access to potable water, sanitation systems, reliable electricity and jobs which facilitate good standards of living and provide opportunities for Liberia’s next generation. With Boakai facing accusations of being soft on corruption and an over-emphasis on securing donor funds from abroad, this year’s elections have brought infrastructure and innovation demands into sharp focus. Liberia ranks 177 of 188 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index, and whoever picks up the mantle in the country’s elections has a proactive voter base to answer to.

Therefore, the Supreme Court’s ruling bodes ill for future developments in the country. As George Weah was predicted to win the run-off, the indefinite delay means the voting public is facing major disenchantment, especially since the elections were widely considered fair by international observers.

To ensure that no undue influence would be exerted during the first round, the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) deployed 34 short-term observers along with an additional 12 EU-state observers from Liberia’s diplomatic missions. The 81-strong team overcame major infrastructure challenges to ensure due process was followed during electoral administration, voter registration, campaigning and counting during the election period. In a preliminary report released within 24 hours after the election, the mission assessed electoral processes as either “good or very good”.

Unfortunately, with the Supreme Court’s ruling, the UP, which previously threatened to boycott the 7 November vote, got exactly what it wanted. With the political climate thus poisoned, the risk of violence is increasing. Although things have remained quiet so far, riot police were deployed in front of the Supreme Court and electoral commission. The authorities seemed to have learned their lessons from the 2011 elections, when sparks of violence left two people dead. As the chief observer of the European Union said, a peaceful transition is very much needed, not only for Liberia but also as an example for the region.

This observation is astute indeed, yet for all its support in the Liberian elections, the EU has shown a marked failure of principled engagement of late. It has remained eerily quiet as the events in Liberia are unfolding, despite its crucial involvement in the electoral process. In the face of these serious allegations from the losing parties, the EU’s reputation is at risk of losing face and credibility if it does not step up to staunchly defend its assessment of the elections.

Europe’s hesitance on Liberia is broadly reflective of its conduct in the wider region. As the Democratic Republic of Congo descends into civil war over the postponement of general elections until at least mid-2019, the EU has failed to go beyond the imposition of sanctions on Congolese leaders. A look at the country shows that this was not enough halt factional in-fighting. And in Kenya, any peace reached by the recent repeat election is tenuous at best.

With the potential for conflict looming on the horizon, the EU should step up and ensure Liberia’s political security as it navigates this new democratic landscape. Otherwise the astronomical progress the country has made since the civil war would be for naught.


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Category: A Frontpage, Africa

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